Evangelist Billy Graham turned 98 Monday. The preacher’s long life started on a dairy farm near Charlotte, North Carolina on November 7, 1918. The Great War in Europe ended on November 11, 1918. He liked to joke that it took the world only four days to hear that he had arrived. Graham’s 98th birthday seems a good time to pause and think about the incredible impact of his life and enduring work.
Most evident are the numerical records. Graham probably spoke to more people face-to-face than any other person in history, 215 million at last count. Additional hundreds of millions encountered him via electronic and print media. In 1956, he founded Christianity Today, which soon ranked as the most widely read Christian periodical in the world. Graham organized international conferences in Europe that helped galvanize the global evangelical movement. He nabbed a spot on Gallup’s list of “Most Admired Men in the World” 59 times, nearly twice as often as runner-up Ronald Reagan.
Graham’s most obvious legacy is the three million men and women who registered commitments for Christ at his crusades. Beyond that figure stand the numberless souls who made decisions in the quiet spaces of their lives.
Yet these data tell only part of the story. Graham’s legacy has taken forms that are hard to measure but important to remember. We see them especially in the realms of evangelical beliefs, everyday life, American politics, and Christian hope.
Beliefs, Changing, and Unchanged
Many of Graham’s beliefs stayed exactly the same decade after decade – and if they sound like the heartbeat of evangelicalism, that is partly because he made them so. They included the Bible’s authority, God’s sovereignty, humans’ sin, Christ’s saving death, resurrection, and return, the necessity of new birth, spiritual and moral growth, mission to others, and a final destiny.
But if those claims remained fixed, others changed, and the changes form a large part of the preacher’s legacy.
First of all, Graham moved from biblical inerrancy and literalism to a more dynamic sense of biblical infallibility. The Bible was authoritative not because it was historically or scientifically accurate in every detail, but because it did what it promised to do: infallibly bring people to faith in Christ. Graham believed in the Bible’s factual accuracy, but that was not the main point. The Bible held authority because it worked.
The second change focused on the new birth. In the early days Graham called for something like a “ready-set-go” conversion experience. Stand up, walk to the front, sign a decision card, join a church, and then witness to your new-found faith. But over time Graham saw that people could show their commitment in other ways. He allowed that many people, including his wife, Ruth, never experienced a single moment of decision. But their faith was in Jesus.
Graham’s notion of the spiritual and moral results that should be the fruit of new birth also evolved. His primary emphasis always fell on individual conversion. But he also came to see the need for intentionally working for social reform, sometimes through legislation. Converted hearts did not automatically produce converted hands.
Evangelicalism with a Necktie
Graham helped teach evangelicals the importance of a practical approach to Christianity. We see it especially in “My Answer,” a daily Q & A column that appeared in newspapers across the country. Most answers came with a heavy dose of conventional evangelical theology, but the theology included common-sense guidelines based on biblical precepts.
Graham served as a badge of credibility for evangelicals. He helped teach them how to take a seat at the table in the public square. One of the most astute historians of American religion, Samuel S. Hill, once said, tongue-in-cheek, “Billy taught evangelicals when to wear a necktie.”
Decade after decade, Graham embodied a pole-star of decency. Biographer William Martin said it best: Graham represented Americans’ “best selves.” Topping the list was the preacher’s commitment to marital fidelity, without compromise of any sort. That included acts that might raise suspicions, such as traveling or dining alone with a woman outside the family. He was equally committed to financial transparency, again, without fudging. And absolute honesty. When reporters asked about the number of converts he had won, Graham responded, “I have no idea. I can count inquirers, but only God knows who the converts are.” And finally, a reticence about criticizing others. Graham targeted broad trends he found destructive, but rarely specific individuals or denominations or religious institutions.
We can’t say that Graham changed U.S. political history as Lyndon Johnson or Martin Luther King, Jr., did. But he did change Americans’ lives in important ways. On most things political, he pointed in a progressive direction.
On the landmark issue of civil rights, for example, Graham showed uneven but unmistakable progress. The youthful Graham – reared in the South – accepted segregation. But in the late 1940s, his conscience awakened. In the early 1950s, he took a succession of bold stands, despite withering attacks. In the early 1960s, unsettled by Black Power and disorder in the streets, he backed off. Temperamentally, he always preferred orderly process. But by the mid-1970s, he would embrace – or re-embrace – the goals, if not always the tactics, of the civil rights movement.
In 1982, in the patriarchal cathedral in Moscow, Graham said that he had undergone three conversions in his life: to Christ, to racial justice, and to nuclear disarmament. It was a long journey. Once a strident Cold War hawk, the mature Graham carried the torch for demilitarization on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He preached that civilization was on the brink of destroying itself. This move took enormous courage in an age when most Americans, not to mention most evangelicals, remained fearful of Soviet intentions.
When the culture wars arrived in the late 1970s, Graham resisted. He agreed with some of the Christian Right’s positions, but he also said its leaders didn’t talk enough about poverty and hunger. Besides, the pulpit should not become a soapbox. Graham insisted that there was a difference between partisan politics, which served the interests of the Democratic or the Republican Parties, and moral politics, which served the interests of the nation and of the world.
Graham’s mistakes in the political realm remind evangelicals that they dare not place anyone on a pedestal. He fell into dogged support for particular presidents, especially Nixon. Graham defended the president’s stand on the Vietnam War and on Watergate long after most Americans had given up on both causes. The press called him the “White House Chaplain.”
One of Graham’s most grievous blunders took place in 1972, when he made scandalous remarks about Jews and the media in the privacy of Nixon’s office. When his words surfaced 30 years later, he was mortified. Graham apologized repeatedly and profusely, in print and face-to-face with Jewish leaders. But the episode tarnished his legacy.
A Second Chance
Without question, Graham’s most important legacy lay in his preaching about Christian hope. Over the years, millions of letters flowed into his Minneapolis office. Often calling him just Billy, writers described lives twisted by sin, marriages on the rocks, kids gone astray, fears of death, and loneliness. No matter how badly you have messed up your life, he urged, Christ offers forgiveness and a new start.
Though Graham regularly preached about Christ’s Second Coming (albeit with few specific details), his main contribution to Christian hope lay exactly there, in the promise of a second chance, not only for individuals but also for the nation and the world of nations.
The historian Margaret Bendroth perceptively predicts that successors won’t look like Graham. They will not be white, let alone white American. They will appeal to multiethnic audiences. Yet like Graham, they will project chastity, integrity, sincerity, ambition, humility, and, above all, hope. And they will not pin their ministries on doctrinal arguments. The tempestuous issues that tend to divide Christians will take second, third, or even tenth place behind a call for a life changing experience with God in Christ, one that transforms the rest of their lives.
This much we can say for sure: Whoever Graham’s successors may be, heralded or unheralded, they will owe an enduring debt to a farm boy from North Carolina.
About the Author
Grant Wacker is author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (2014).